UW–Madison research using video games to improve balance gets media attention

The work of a UW–Madison research team including the School of Education’s Brittany Travers has been featured in the news recently.

Photo of Brittany Travers

Travers is an associate professor of occupational therapy in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, and a lead researcher for UW–Madison’s Waisman Center. She is part of a team that has been researching using video games to improve balance for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder.

The study, published in the journal Brain Communications, has found that balance training using an on-screen game and balance board helped improve the balance of adolescents with autism ages 13-17. It also improved their posture and reduced the severity of their autism symptoms.

Speaking with Wisconsin Public Radio recently about the study, Travers noted that balance control appears to plateau earlier in kids with autism than those without. She said she and her colleagues are interested in finding better interventions that improve kids’ motor skills, and they wanted to make balance training fun.

“There’s a lot of ways that one could train balance, but we’re really trying to capitalize and gamify some of these balance effects in order to make it fun and interesting and something that people actually want to do, not something people feel like they have to do,” Travers said.

In a report for the Capital Times, Travers said that the study is unique because it reveals “how motor interventions and intensive motor training may impact autistic individuals, both in terms of the brain and in terms of behavior.”

Brittany Travers with a study participant during a training session for a video game that helps improve balance in autistic teenagers.
Brittany Travers with a study participant during a training session for a video game that helps improve balance in autistic teenagers. (Photo by Andy Manis)

After six weeks of balance training using the game, participants increased the time they were able to hold a pose on one foot by an average of 36 seconds — “enough time to prevent slipping on ice or stepping into a bathtub or losing balance,” Travers said.

In addition, study participants showed improvements in their posture after taking part in the training sessions, and parents reported decreases in the severity of their children’s autism symptoms.

A takeaway for Travers, she said, is that motor training doesn’t have to be boring or tedious.

“There are good and healthy things we can do for ourselves and our bodies, but sometimes we need that extra motivation for us to actually do it,” she told the Capital Times. “One of the important pieces here is that there can be interventions for autistic individuals that are motivating and fun.”

Learn more about this important work by reading the full reports from Wisconsin Public Radio and the Capital Times.

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